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The Analysis of the Historical Development of the Distinct Self Muslim Identity Construction Vis-À-Vis the Christian-Western Civilization- (FINAL)


By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

In this final part we examine the historical development of the distinct Muslim identity from the colonial period to the present.

h.) The Colonial –Post Colonial period

All of the encounters between the two civilisations as described so far had an element of power in them, be that military, political, economic, demographic or legal power. The difference in the power balance between the two civilisations reached its peak in the 19th century. During this time-period a majority of Muslim lands came under the military, economic, political and cultural dominion of the European powers. Therefore, the West was conceived by colonised Muslims primarily in terms of a foreign aggressor and coloniser and an aggressive military and political body. Parallel to the period of expanding European colonialism, Christian missionary activity was taking place. Both of these civilisational forces came to be characterised in similar terms by the subjugated Muslim societies. Missionaries were considered to be serving Western civilisational interests characterised by “liberal secularism, imperialistic tendencies, dehumanisation, domination and meaninglessness” (Sardar, 1991, 2). These perceptions, in turn, “became deeply embedded in the consciousness of most Muslims forming part of the [overall] anti-Western rhetoric… [and were] constantly renewed by manifestation of neo-colonialism in the present” (Zebiri, 1997, 30; 32).

The essentialist constructions of the Other embedded in the epistemological frameworks of the Enlightenment period, in turn, gave rise to the phenomenon of Orientalism which remained faithful to the earlier essentialist images of the Self on the basis of the stereotypical Other, in this case the Muslims. The phenomenon of Orientalism, due to the enormous impact it had on relations between Islamic and Western/Christian civilisations and their identity constructions, requires a further comment.

The real importance and the historical uniqueness of the Orientalist discourse, argues Pieterberg et al. (2000, 72-73) lies in:

Its universality and its power to determine what should be considered objectively scientific and valid knowledge, and thus the power to shape the identity, culture and history, not only of its subjects, but also of its object. In other words, the historical uniqueness of Orientalism does not merely lie in the fact of ‘Otherisation’, but in the result of this ‘Otherisation’: the designated Other, the Orientalised Oriental, has come to accept his ‘Otherisation’ as his true and scientifically valid Self.

Some colonial versions of Orientalism,[7] and the rise of Islamic religious extremism in its neo-fundamentalist versions in the second half of the 20th century can be conceived as the accumulative product of the history of mutual essentialist civilisational identity construction between Muslim and Christian –Western civilisations based on , in the words of Said (1985,89), the essentialist:

representation of other cultures, societies, histories; a [particular] relationship between power and knowledge; the [particular] role of the intellectual and [particular] methodological questions that have to do with the relationship between different kinds of texts, between text and context, between text and history.

h.) The Post-Colonial period to Present

With the arrival of the skilled and unskilled immigrant labour into Western countries and the technology and communication revolution this period has witnessed the formation of multiple, largely expended trans-cultural public spheres thus increasing the civilisational and personal interaction between Islamic and Christian-Western civilisations. Although occurring in earlier times, albeit on a much smaller scale, a diversification of the civilisational experience of the Other is now taking place on a more significant level. As a result, at the conceptual level, perhaps for the first time we can talk about the different sub-sections of the respective civilisations (as well as individuals) experiencing or construing considerably different views of the Other. In the context of Muslims I differentiate between several Muslim attitudes towards the West and the construction of the Other.

Waardenburg points out that during the period under consideration different Wests were experienced and perceived by different Muslim individuals and groups.[8] He categorises the current Muslim socio-political and cultural discourse on the West as follows:

-“The Orient–Occident/East-West mutually exclusive, essentialist interpretation,

-The West as a political concept and political adversary,

-The West linked to modernity and modern society (use of reason, scholarly knowledge, economic development, technological progress),

-The West as associated with a particular way of life (with little concern for lasting values, religion and tradition),

-For “neo-fundamentalists”, the West is seen as the embodiment of modern jahiliyah and a danger to the Muslim way of life due to its obsession with materialism; a place where secularity dominates; a society in which people are bereft of any higher spiritual truths, norms and values; a society in which people easily fall victim to desire, vice and lust; a Godless society with human –made idols (Waardenburg, 2003, 48-49).

In its more radical form this “neo-fundamentalist version of the Islamists” (based on the ideologies represented/embodied by, for example, Maududi, Qutb) conceptualises the West in terms of an aggressive, self-imposing political, economic and cultural enemy trying to permeate, Westernise and secularise the Arab-Muslim East to a point at which Muslim identity and authenticity is entirely lost (Ibid.,251). Furthermore, the Islamists’ view of own Self, argues Waardenburg, is based upon notions of:

-Renewed affirmation of Islamic identity and a rejection of Western criticism of Islam or of particular situations in Muslim countries,

-Continuous emphasis on the ideological historical conflict-ridden process between the two civilisations,

-Development of a self-defence mechanism against perceived encroachment of the West and its fending off by the development of an idealised superior alternative model of the Islamisation of the world and knowledge,

-The emphasis of the ideology of secularism as stemming from the West and being the real enemy of Islam,

-Highly critical claims of Western modernity, colonialism and neo-imperialism and of the process of “Westernisation” of Muslims societies and Islam, and

-Development of an Islamic epistemology distinct from that of Western scholarship (Ibid. 251-254).

Thus these “neo-fundamentalist Islamists”, to use Waardenburg terminology, envisage as normative the relationship between Western and Muslim identities and their respective civilisations that emphasises distinctiveness and mutual exclusion. Using my terminology they engage in a civilisationally exclusivist and antagonistic Self-Other identity construction dialectic.

In a more “sympathetic” view of the West and with an apologetic approach to its own tradition, the West is conceived in terms of technological and scientific progress, [9] a rational modern (in opposition to traditionally based) society based on the principals of the rule of law (Ibid.). As such these principals are worthy of imitation and are considered “Islamic”. However, the West’s perceived lack of spiritual, moral, ethical and religious dimensions are heavily criticised by those who have this approach to the West. The West is considered a threat not only to itself but to Muslim societies [10] considered to be increasingly coming under its influence (Ibid.).

In its “secular” [11] version, Muslim discourse on the West is considered the only source of modernity leading towards progress and (material) well-being. The West embodies the ultimate expression and the very pinnacle of political, economic, societal and cultural development and is to be largely blindly and uncritically imitated and/or followed (Ibid.).

From the critical-progressive Muslim [12] viewpoint the socio-political and cultural processes which have brought about epistemological and ontological changes in the Western worldview and resulted in the advent of modernity are considered by as a result of a dynamic process of civilisational interaction and mutual construction through trans-cultural, trans-political and trans-social processes. Muslims within this school of thought advocate a modern episteme in the humanities, arts and social sciences along with a critical and serious engagement with the inherited Islamic tradition (Moosa, 2007). Additionally, this modern episteme could be also applied within the framework of the socio-cultural context of Muslim majority societies resulting in the genesis of another distinct type of modernity (Hanafi, 2000).

For most Westerners, argues Waardenburg (2003, 6-7), the advent of (post) modernity has radically altered the way people identified/identify with religion and how they place and integrate their religious identity into their overall identity. Religious identity, if existent at all, is considered as just one alongside many others and is juxtaposed horizontally next to them without any hierarchical order evident (Ibid.) In the majority of Muslim countries, however, especially at the time when the first Muslim immigrants after the Second World War were arriving in various Western countries, the traditional ethico-religious and socio-cultural worldview[13] still largely[14] prevailed.[15] In these traditionally based societies with traditionalist Weltanschauung religious identity acts as the base and a foundation on top of which overall identity rests.

This disparate view of religion and its place/function in society is a major point of departure and contention between many Muslims (regardless of whether they live in a Muslim minority or majority context) and many Westerners.

i.) Contemporary Muslim communities’ identity construction in the West

The presence of a significant numbers of Muslim communities and the way members of those communities construct their religious identity in Western societies needs to be evaluated against the above briefly outlined context of the historically mutually constructed Self-Other (religious) identity.

In today’s Western societies both Western Christian and Muslim identities have become more personalised and to some extent have detached themselves from the historically dominating civilisation-based identity construction (Waardenburg, 2003, 247). Consequently, asserts Waardenburg, the religious identities have taken on a broader spectrum of meanings” (Ibid.). As Ameli (2002,109) asserts the process of secularisation and globalisation, most forcefully evident in the West, brought about multifaceted processes of social change through which religious thinking, practice and institutions lost their social significance. However, in the case of certain religious communities, in this case Western born Muslims, the context of immigration and being a part of a minority culture has re-affirmed the antagonistic and exclusivist construction of the construction of the Self and the Other as described below in the context of what here is referred to as Neo-Traditional Salafi (NTS)Muslim identity.[16] Many Western Muslims perceive that they face a “real risk of being absorbed into a more powerful other” which nourishes this “polemic [that] serves to re-enforce lines of demarcation between Self and the Other” (Zebiri, 1997, 45).

6. Types of religious identities in Western born generation of Muslims-The case of Neo-Traditional Salafis (NTS) and Progressive Muslims (PM)

On the one hand the processes of immigration, de-ethnicitisation and de-culturation have resulted in the creation of a unique, hybrid group of second generation Muslims characterised by a “mixture of (basic) Islamic Weltanschauung and appreciation of Western democratic institutions.” A Muslim identity that is “comfortable with fluid and plural identities,” (Roy, 2004, Dweyer, 1999) on whose basis being genuinely engaged in the mainstream Western society and remaining genuinely Muslim is not seen as a contradiction in terms (Schmidt, 2004;Samad, 1998). A variety of terminology is used to describe this type of being a Muslim such as modernist Muslims (Cesari, 2004b, 87-90), rationalists (Waardenburg, 2000, 61) or enlightened rationalists (Gilliat, 1994, 186).

For example, Gilliat (Ibid, 236) refers to this type of being a Muslim in a following manner:

There is an important minority of young Muslims in Britain who are not only devoted Muslims, but also fully participating in the wider society when it comes to general social life…[T]hey appear to be confident in their religious identity, and they do not rely on outward signs of this identity to bolster their inner sense of being Muslim. As a consequence, they can mix freely with non-Muslims in the wider society, without feeling threatened, or compromising their Islam. They are perhaps the ones who most aspire to being recognised as ‘British Muslims.’

Mandaville and Hunter (2002, 220) note this type of Western Muslim identity in the context of European Muslims when stating that:

…there are observant Muslims who view Western norms, popular culture, and lifestyles as mostly compatible with Islam. They do not see inherent conflict in their dual identities as Muslims and Europeans.

Roy (2004) terms this a “reformised liberal view” of Islam. Cesari also points to the existence of similar reformist trends [in Islam] as a result of “Western freedom of expression and cultural globalisation.”(Cesari, 2004 a) Marechal et al. refer (2003, 14) to it as ‘liberal’. Modood and Ahmed (2007) notice the same and labels it as moderate. In this article this type of identity construction is described as progressive religious identity.[17] This type of identity should not be confused with what is usually termed symbolic religious identity which denotes a poor and fragmented knowledge of religious norms, a low level of ritual observance, but yet a strong feeling of identification with religion and religious community (Gans,1996) which also exists among Western-born Muslim youth (Eid, 2002, 37). In other words, progressives consider their religious identity to be traditionally authentic and derived from a particular interpretation of the normative sources.

This way of being and feeling [18] a Western Muslim is founded on the Self-Other identity construction dialectic that can be characterized as religiously inclusivist and civilisationally syncretic. This type of Western Muslim identity is in line with the notion of the definition of a community of believers that was originally conceptualised independent of confessional identities during the early era of Islamic thought as discussed above and signifies a clear rupture with the predominant mode of the ‘historicity’ of the Self-Other identity construction dialectic that developed afterwards .

On the other hand it is noted that the same processes of immigration, de-ethnicitisation and de-culturation that facilitate the formation of identities on purely religious grounds (Roy, 2004) have been largely responsible for “puritanical and fundamentalist movements of Islam”(Cesari,2004a,93,102-103) and a creation of what Hermansen (2003,309;cf. Ebaugh and Chafez 2000; Nielsen,1997) terms the “culture free identity Islam.” I refer to this type of identity among Muslims as Neo-Traditional Salafi.[19] Gardner’s (1993) study of Bangladesh community in East End of London indicates that transnational migration processes and practices can lead to puritanism, increased religious zeal and what she terms “orthodoxy” based on scripturalism. This type of religious-based identity “attempts to purify Islam of cultural influences and redefine it along purely religious lines” (Roy, 2004, 121). Eid refers to it as “non-symbolic “or “ultra- orthodox” identity which “develops parallel alternatives to mainstream institutions and cultural systems shielded from Western influences […] facilitating Islam-based neo-communalist tendencies and Islamisation of ethnic identities’ internal dimension”(Eid,2007,51). Hashmi (2003, 219) also detected similar socially isolationist tendencies among some of the participants in her study who emphasised their Muslimness through adoption of external religious markers/signifiers such as the headscarf. Dassetto (2000) also found that certain Muslims developed these socially isolationist inclinations. Mandaville (2007) notices that among second and third generation of immigrant families in Britain conservative and politically extreme rendition of Islam is evident whose function is to, in the context of multicultural Britain, keep together the diverse components of identity in a cohesive manner. Haddad and Smith (2003,42) similarly assert that this type of a Muslim, which has gathered some adherents among some university students in United States, “see[s] the [Muslim] community as permanently maintaining its separateness, difference and distinction in diaspora.” According to Hermansen (2003, 310) many aspects of this version of Islamic identity are based on:

A mindless and rigid rejection of ‘The Other’ and the creation of recaptured, rule- based space where one asserts Muslim ‘difference’ based on gender segregation, romantic recreations of madrasa experiences and the most blatantly apologetic articulations of Islam..replac[ing] spirituality with arrogance and a smug pride in one’s superior manifestation of visible symbols of identity.

It is this type of affirmation of “pure culture-free religious identity” of the alienated, marginalized and disempowered Muslim youth that is most frequently associated with global militant Islam (Roy,2004,232-287).This, in the words of Roy, wide-spread, neo-fundamentalist” component of the contemporary Islamic resurgence among Western born generation Muslims(Ibid.,315-317), is exhibited by engaging in what Noor (2003, 322) terms the “rhetoric of oppositional dialectics” in which the question of Islamic identity is primarily approached on the basis “of the trope of the negative Other which manifests itself in a number of forms: secularism, the West, international Jewry/Zionism, capitalism etc.” Cesari (2004a, 53-56; 95-109; 54; cf.Cesari, 2003, 264-265) also identifies this type of religious identity operating within a binary Weltanschauung those appeals to a cultured Western Muslims youth. She labels it orthodox and asserts that for this type of religious identity among Western Muslim youth “Islam is the positive and the West is the negative.” Citing Gill, Gilliat (1994, 186) describes them as

Muslims with a strong and fervent faith [who] seem to defy all the secularist, liberal trends…[T]hose who hold to unswerving convictions [that] may be regarded as adhering to a “system of beliefs and practices which treat scriptural absolutism as the way to counter pluralism and relativism engendered by modernity.

This way of being, feeling and constructing a Muslim identity , therefore, can be seen as a continuation of the dominant historical manner in which the Self-Other mutual identity construction between the Islamo-Arab and Christian-Western  civilisations has been constructed and is characterised by a civilisationally antagonistic and religiously exclusivist dynamics.

7.) Conclusion:

The long history of Christian –Muslim mutual identity construction at both civilisational and individual levels, apart from the early Islamic formative period, largely emphasises the religious uniqueness and distinctiveness of the respective faiths based on a particular interpretation /understanding of their religious tradition. It is important to highlight that the contextual background within which civilisational interactions and the creation of trans-cultural spaces took place was dominated by confrontational political, military, economic and cultural overtones and that this fostered antagonistic and religiously exclusivist construction of the Self as well as that of the Other. This mutually essentialist paradigm spanning many centuries perpetuated stereotypical images of the Self (either Christianity or Islam) and the Other( Islam or Christianity) upon which religious identity construction was based and inherited. In more recent times a diversification of religious identities within faith communities has transpired. Some types of being a Muslim that the author refers to as progressive, do not subscribe to this antagonistic and reactionary construction of the Muslim Self vis-à-vis the other whilst other contemporary constructions of the Muslim Self, are, in essence, a continuation of the medieval Self-Other identity construction dialectic that was outlined above, as in the case of neo-fundamentalist versions of Islam.

The current state of international relations and geo-politics, when considered in the light of the above, can be (and is) increasingly seen by many (Western) Muslims today to further strengthen the dominant  historical narrative between the Islamo-Arabic and Christian-Western civilisations strongly influencing the manner in which their religious identity is being constructed. For those of us who are interested in developing an alternative narrative characterised by religious inclusivism and civilisational syncretism challenging and turbulent times are ahead. However, as shown above, the Islamic tradition and its civilisation possess strong historical precedents to permit the formation of a narrative that is premised upon the idea of religious inclusivism and civilisational syncretism.


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[1] For evidence of the civilisationally antagonistic views among Western Muslims see G. Marranci,(2008). Understanding Muslim identities: Rethinking Fundamentalism, Palgrave Mcmillan.

[2] First Byzantine East and then the Latin West.

[3] At this point in time represented solely by Byzantine Christianity in the eyes of the Muslims.

[4] At the time of the Abbasid’s rule the territory under Muslim rule included large number of populace which were non-Muslim and outnumbered those who were. I. Lapidus(1988), A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press.

[5] With exclusive reference to Christian belief.

[6] The term Western rather than Christian civilisation will be used from this point in time due to the fact that amongst societal changes in the West listed above, religion was no longer considered the dominant marker of its civilisational identity.

[7] It must be acknowledged, however, that European scholarship on Islam, especially its German authors, exhibited high(er) levels of scholarly objectivism in their methodology and approaches to the study of Islam. For critique of Said’s thought see Ibn Warraq ‘Edward Said and the Saidists’ in Spencer (2005, 474-516).

[8] And, of course ,vice-versa.

[9] Islamists largely share this view too.

[10] Especially the Muslim communities in the West, which are seen as particularly vulnerable.

[11] Secular Muslims are here defined as those Muslims who claim an epistemological break with the Islamic tradition as embodied in the primary sources of the Islamic worldview, Qur’an and Sunnah and describe themselves as non-practicing Muslims.

[12] On Progressive Muslims see Safi (2003), Moosa (2007) and  Duderija (2008,b).

[13] Traditional worldview is here taken in the sense of the “Arab mind” as discussed by Arab intellectual Adonis (pseudonym) ,‘Ali Ahmad Sa’id. See Mansoor (2000).

[14] There were of course a number of immigrants such as those who fled the Khomeini regime in Iran, for example, who do not fit this category.

[15] This is perhaps best reflected in strong resistance to changes in Muslim Family Law in countries which otherwise have “modernised” other aspect of their nation-state, including other aspect of the law.

[16] For a more detailed discussion on Neo-traditional Salafism see Duderija ( 2007 b) and Duderija  (2010).

[17] See footnote 12.

[18] The importance of emotional commitment in identity formation among Western Muslims has been outlined in Marranci (2006) and (2009).

[19] See footnote 16.